Roamin’ Catholic

Source: Time Out
Author: Peter Paphides
Copyright: (c) Time Out

It’s a long way to Tipperary. Ask Shane MacGowan, who staggered out of The Pogues to spend two years exploring his home town and re-examining his Catholic past. Now he’s back with a new band, The Popes, and he’s as mean, moody and angry as ever Peter Paphides buys him a drink. Photography by Paul Spencer.

Shane Macgowan is in a good mood. This you can tell by the way he shakes your hand, then the way his eyebrows arch affably inwards. Most of all, though its the broad toothless laugh that really gives it away. Like a cross between Ernie from ‘Sesame Street’ and Muttley. it’s a laugh that only one word can attempt to do justice to. And that word is Kkhhhkkh.!?,’

How’s it going, Shane? ‘Good. I always come here when I’m in London. It’s an Irish pub, so everyone’s really friendly. No one gives you any trouble. And they let me use the phone up- stairs… kkhhhkkh!!’

Sure enough, the barman directs a homely wink, and the paltry remainder of Islington’s dusk light makes straight for the five gold Pogues discs that line the walls. Salacious voyeurs will be disappointed to hear that Shane’s looking well. True, a decade of hedonism with The Pogues and (prior to that) London punk clowns The Nips, has etched a few extra lines around his face, but for someone who’s supposed to have six months to live, 25 per cent of his liver left and a drip permanently attached to his arm, Shane is miraculously cogent.

‘I’ve read all the cliche’s,’ he sniffs. ‘Apparently I’m a hopeless drunk, I’m gonna die, I’m fat and I stumble and stagger all over the stage like an idiot. It gets a bit boring after a while.’

Shane’s spent the last two years assembling his new band ‘The Popes’, whose new album, ‘Snake’, captures him in finer voice than ever. There are many great things about the album that call to mind the days of Pogues benchmarks like ‘Rum, Sodomy And The Lash’ and ‘If I Should Fall From Grace with God’. but the most heartening thing about the first Popes recordings is the rage that’s returned to MacGowan’s voice. ‘Song With No Name’ entangles the line between The Chieftains’ more reflective moments and battle-scarred Pogues balladeering with ramshackle audacity, while on the recent single, ‘Church Of The Holy Spook’, Shane’s tearing into his Catholic upbringing with glee. A closer look at the lyric, however, reveals an air of reconciliation between Shane and his religious, port-stained childhood.

‘I’ve been a lot happier since The Pogues,’ he says, nursing his only Michelob of the evening. ‘After I left, I realised that I’d be happier out of London, so I moved to Tipperary.’ Shane had already spent his early childhood in Tipperary; presided over by his parents and an extended network of relatives. He describes his father as ‘a pen-pusher in an office’. His mother was ‘a typist in a convent… kkhhhkkh!! They spent the first ten years of my life lapsing and repenting all the way through the ’60s – like bloody yo-yos – but I stayed a religious maniac until the age of 1l.’

This period of Shane’s life has formed the blood and bones of his writing since the birth of The Pogues. God, Satan, sex and whiskey are, by Shane’s own admission, the bedrock of all his writing, from new songs like ‘That Woman’s Got Me thinking’ back to ‘Red Roses For Me’:’I remember the day I lapsed like it was yesterday,’ he begins. ‘I was walking up a country lane, and it just hit me… hang on… just supposing it isn’t true. Suppose there’s no heaven or hell? Suppose there’s nothing after death? And I just couldn’t get that out of my head. It was my Auntie Nora. She used to indoctrinate me with loads of Catholic magazines and make me do the Rosary. When I got to about ten, I’d go back to Tipperary in my holidays and stay with her. Auntie Nora used to smoke and gamble – those were the vices she passed on to me. We used to do the horses and she’d give me cigarettes and port.’

So much for her Godly influence.,.

‘Well. her belief was that if You allow kids to drink what you’re drinking in the house. then you don’t shroud it in mystique and you stop them becoming alcoholics.’

Eh? ‘In my case though, it turned me into a raving lush!! Kkhhhkkh!! Auntie Nora and I used to do the Irish Independent Sweepstakes – a combination of betting on horses and doing a crossword, right? And that’s how I became good with English. By the time I got to school in England I was six years old and fully literate.’

In essence, the Shane MacGowan who roamed the streets of Tipperary through the summer holidays of his early teens – smoking and drinking, coming to terms with his lapsed Catholicism – is the Shane MacGowan we see today. It’s not hard to see the enquiring child in those welcoming eyes. Shane’s inquisitive nature means I can hardly throw a question at him without having to answer three about my- self. Spend any time with him, and you gradually begin to realise that many of the problems that have befallen Shane over the years hail from his reluctance to confront people. Towards the end of his time in The Pogues. constant touring became too much and Shane was too diffident to assert his will over the band’s absurd eight-way democracy. Not wanting to ruin everything for the rest of the band by departing, Shane turned deeper within himself. Drink was the catalyst, just as it had been all those years ago, abetted this time by an increasing penchant for acid. Rather than confront the others. Shane disappeared mid-tour for days on end. Inevitably. all this has acted as marvellous fodder for journalists seeking to label him as a latterday cross between Keith Moon and Brendan Behan, but it’s a crude perception.

Furthermore, a man whose references, inspiration and songwriting are still sending shock waves through Irish folk does not need our pity. Indeed. It’s the riot of deity, piety and sin deep inside Shane MacGowan that makes his songs so remarkable. Listen to ‘Rainy Night In Soho’ and on the new album, ‘Song With No Name, then try and reconcile their lachrymose poetry with the oft-repeated stories of Shane wrecking hotels and falling out of speeding tour buses. And if his reputation as a difficult interviewee has any origin. it stems from an irritation from ‘admirers’ onlv interested in pitying a ‘once-great talent’. MacGowan’s too intelligent to play these games. If he’s been portrayed as a comatose shell, drink and drugs are by no means the whole story. In the same way that Eric Cantona pretends not to speak English when he doesn t want to answer a question, MacGowan deploys his own defence mechanisms.

‘I usually know within a couple of minutes if someone’s gonna be a pain in the arse, you know? If people are gonna be stupid to me, then I’m gonna be stupid back, because at the end of the day, what I do isn’t that complicated. I don’t set out to confuse people. I write simple songs that people can sing along to. Like, there’s no point explaining what ‘Summer In Siam’ is about…’ Shane rolls his eyes skywards in exasperation, ‘… because the bloody thing’s about what it says it’s about. Kkhhhkkh!!’

We finish on more resolute matters, I tell Shane that ‘Snake’ should silence a lot of cynics. especially as he hasn’t sounded this exuberant since the beginning of The Pogues. ‘Well, I don’t get very nostalgic, you know? The first five years of The Pogues were brilliant, but then egos got in the way. Looking back I went off the rails. but then a lot of people do. It’s no big deal.’

Ultimately. the thing that’s always driven Shane is the thing that he’d been gradually get- ting further away from since those childhood holidays in Tipperary. The simple happiness provided by simple pleasures. A chat. Perhaps a drink. Nice scenery. Good company. No arguments. Little else. Shane talks about his recent sojourns to Thailand – the country that inspired not only the lilting idyll of ‘Summer In Siam’ but a new song, ‘Victoria’ – and his eyes glaze over. ‘I enjoy myself in places where people can’t speak the same language as me,’ he mulls absently ‘You pick up a tiny bit of Thai, they pick up some English. And there’s no chance of ridiculous arguments and discussions that get people angry. You can just communicate rather than argue. There’s no fucking point in arguing. Nobody has ever changed their mind at the end of the evening, know what I mean?’

Our bottles collide, we pick up our coats and shuffle out of the bar, not once turning to look at the discs on the wall, Shane MacGowan, it seems. is only interested in what lies ahead. ‘Snake’is released on Oct 17. The single, ‘That Woman’s Got me Drinking’, is out Oct 3. Both are on ZTT. Live dates to be announced.